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Monday, February 08, 2010

Football and Pynchon: deeper than oddity ought to drive

"I like football for the graphic interfaces!" I remarked to Ben's brother, Alex, last night. He replied that Ben has said the same thing: "You guys should start a blog or something." I was thinking about this article from The New York Times about how military intelligence officers are looking to John Madden's telestrator technology as a way to mediate information gathered by drones in Afghanistan:
They are even testing some of the splashier techniques used by broadcasters, like the telestrator that John Madden popularized for scrawling football plays. It could be used to warn troops about a threatening vehicle or to circle a compound that a drone should attack.

“Imagine you are tuning in to a football game without all the graphics,” said Lucius Stone, an executive at Harris Broadcast Communications, a provider of commercial technology that is working with the military. “You don’t know what the score is. You don’t know what the down is. It’s just raw video. And that’s how the guys in the military have been using it.”
So Cmdr. Joseph A. Smith, a Navy officer assigned to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which sets standards for video intelligence, said he and other officials had climbed into broadcast trucks outside football stadiums to learn how the networks tagged and retrieved highlight film.

“There are these three guys who sit in the back of an ESPN or Fox Sports van, and every time Tom Brady comes on the screen, they tap a button so that Tom Brady is marked,” Commander Smith said, referring to the New England Patriots quarterback. Then, to call up the highlights later, he said, “they just type in: ‘Tom Brady, touchdown pass.’ ”

Having been the "videographer" and "statistician" for the high school girls basketball team (read: the totally thankless job of being the manager because I am clumsy), I'm always interested in this subject of how one mediates visual perspective into information. I spent a lot of time watching live basketball through a camera lens, and most of the basketball I watch now is mediated through a television camera lens. I like watching games from the aerial perspective to see how plays work, and I was stunned by how cool the XFL camera angle looked last night when Tracy Porter intercepted Peyton Manning. I got interested in football when I was in college, when one of my friends had two big-screen televisions in his suite--one for playing Madden NFL, one for the ladies (which seemed to have Four Weddings and a Funeral on a loop). When I learned that football players were using Madden to study plays, I found my entry into the sport--if you can turn it into a question about how people process information, then I'm hooked! From this month's Wired:
It’s one thing to suggest that videogames may be making us smarter. It’s another thing altogether to say they might be making us better athletes. But when you add it up, the evidence starts to look pretty overwhelming. At the Pop Warner Super Bowl in 2006, the winning team had 30 offensive plays, which it had learned through Madden. (”I programmed our offense into Madden to help me memorize our plays,” one 11-year-old told Sports Illustrated. “It was easier than homework.”) Dezmon Briscoe, an all-conference wide receiver for the University of Kansas, credited Madden 2009 with teaching him how to read when defenses “roll their coverages” — move their defensive backs to disguise their strategy. Chuck Kyle, a high school coach who has won 10 state championships in football-mad Ohio, has programmed his team USA playbook into Madden and uses it to teach players their assignments. So have coaches at Colorado State, Penn State, and the University of Missouri, among other schools. An offensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the videogame as a preparation tool for an entire season, scouting his opponents digitally. While even-more-sophisticated software is available for virtual sports training, coaches and players at all levels of football say that Madden’s off-the-shelf simulation is good enough.

Marshall Faulk, former superstar running back for the St. Louis Rams (he appeared on the cover of Madden 2003), says that when he entered the NFL in 1994, “probably 10, 15, 20 percent” of the players were gamers. “Now? Anywhere from 50 percent on up,” he says. “Because Madden is sort of a mainstay in football, a lot of the kids playing in the NFL now grew up on it. It makes you a better football player.” Faulk may be understating the title’s popularity in the league: When I asked Stokley how many NFL players are Madden players, his estimate was even higher: “Everybody.”

Side note on interfacing information in text: Wired's commitment to adding hyperlinks and YouTube as supplements to the articles really pays off in a way that the Times is trying to do but can do more of.

A Times reader recommends James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy for more on this phenomenon.

The Kotaku video game blog notes that Madden can simulate games with remarkable results, as in this year's prediction of a Saints victory:
Stevenson was proud that the Madden Sim delivered a game-changing special teams play that, while it did not happen in the real Super Bowl, mimicked the effect of New Orleans' shocking onsides-kick recovery to open the second half. In the Madden Sim, Reggie Bush returned a punt 46 yards to put the Saints on top 28-24. While the Colts briefly regained the lead in that sim, "it is cool that our game also predicted a pivotal turning point on special teams."
Whatever the case, with this kind of accuracy after seven years, the Madden Sim has emerged as a counterpart to the Madden Curse for reliably predictive if statistically unproven performance.

And yet the Pynchonian in me reflects on that article about Madden-interfaced drones and wants to read these predictions and mediations in a sinister way. From Gravity's Rainbow:
The rockets are distributing about London just as Poisson's equation in the textbooks predicts. As the data keep coming in, Roger looks more and more like a prophet. Psi Section people stare after him in the hallways. It's not precognition, he wants to make an announcement in the cafeteria or something ... have I ever pretended to be anything I'm not? all I'm doing is plugging numbers into a well-known equation, you can look it up and do it yourself.

His little bureau is dominated now by a glimmering map, a window into another landscape than winter Sussex, written names and spidering streets, an ink ghost of London, ruled off into 576 squares, a quarter square kilometer each. Rocket strikes are represented by red circles. The Poisson equation will tell, for a number of total hits arbitrarily chosen, how many squares will get none, how many one, two, three, and so on.

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Blogger Alice on Tue Feb 09, 01:14:00 AM:

And, of course, Deadspin's favorite telestrator images complete this connection to Pynchon.
Blogger Katy on Tue Feb 09, 12:49:00 PM:
Alice, I love this post. I rely completely on the little yellow line when I watch football on TV to make sense of everything. OK, that and Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of football plays and strategy.

I've been interested in drones lately and have been doing some thinking and reading about how that kind of warfare affects soldiers and other participants psychologically. "On the Media" had this fascinating segment about drones in November, and Jay and I were discussing it last night while watching a PBS show about the bombing of Germany, which was carpetbombing with incendiary devices--the total opposite of targeted drone attacks. Some of the pilots they interviewed were saying that they didn't think about the civilians on the ground when they were on bombing missions--they only thought about military targets and saw the cities they were bombing AS military targets. The OTM piece seems to say that even though the drone operators can clearly see the people they're bombing, one of the things they struggle with is that the killing feels very video game-y, and it's hard to know how to respond psychologically. Tough, and worth a listen.
Anonymous Tove Hermanson on Fri Feb 19, 04:20:00 PM:
You who know me know I am obsessed with all things visual-- graphics, colors, textures, shadows, etc. all excite me more than the average bear. I am also notoriously bad at registering and retaining numbers: dates, statistics, positions / times / locations. Using images to punctuate or demonstrate a point, highlight a time and place, literally showing where / how to look at an image and extract and retain valuable information is not just a convenience for me; it's a necessity. It's amazing to me that there aren't more accompanying photos, sketches, and interactive graphic tools incorporated in situations where information is meant to be analyzed, acted upon, or distributed rapidly, as in sports or war scenarios.